“Blue” hydrogen is worse for climate than coal, says study

Expand / Hyundai Neso Patrol car at a hydrogen filling station in Saxony, Germany.

Gas companies and utilities are in the shoes. Their overall business model is based on extracting, transporting, and burning methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases known to man. Many countries face uncertain futures, with a view to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

One solution is to replace or partially replace natural gas with hydrogen to heat their homes or generate electricity and run them into hydrogen distribution lines. Hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel produced by the use of solar and wind power, and while renewable natural gas infrastructure is expensive, it will result in gas-only facilities.

The problem is that the production of hydrogen, which is called “green”, is expensive, and according to predictions, it will last for ten or more years.

To buy time, utilities and oil and gas companies are proposing to produce hydrogen from natural gas. Most of the hydrogen today exposes natural gas to high temperatures, pressures and steam, creating carbon dioxide as a by-product. In “gray” hydrogen, all that carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Utilities in “blue” hydrogen capture and sell or store carbon dioxide, often deep underground.

Blue Hydrogen is seen by some as a bridge, a way to build a hydrogen economy until green hydrogen prices fall. Meanwhile, blue hydrogen is also thought to be less polluting than gray hydrogen, natural gas or other carbon-based fuels.

According to a new peer review, blue hydrogen may never be low in carbon. In fact, the study found that if we burned charcoal instead, the weather could be better.

Achilles heel

There are two ways to produce blue hydrogen, and both rely on the process of steam, hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce methane and water at high temperatures, pressures and steam. For both approaches, carbon dioxide is stored or used from steam recycling. The difference between the two is whether carbon dioxide is released from the generators that power the steam regeneration and carbon retention processes.

To top it all off, carbon emissions from all parts of the process – steam recovery, energy supply and carbon retention – reduce carbon emissions by only 3 percent compared to steam recycling alone. The lowest carbon blue hydrogen was 12 percent less than gray hydrogen.

Blue Hydrogen is the methane used to produce Achilles heels. Methane is a major component of natural gas, and when it is burned more cleanly than oil or coal, it is in itself a powerful greenhouse gas. For more than 20 years, one ton of carbon has heated 86 times more than one ton of carbon dioxide. This means that leaking through the supply chain can eliminate many of the methane climate benefits.

Comparison of carbon emissions from carbon hydrogen, blue hydrogen to partial carbon, blue hydrogen to more complete carbon, natural gas to heat, diesel fuel to heat, coal to heat.  Carbon emissions are seen in oranges, including in the production, processing and transportation of fuels.  Carbon dioxide emissions of rust, unburned methane are shown in red.
Expand / Comparison of carbon emissions from carbon hydrogen, blue hydrogen to partial carbon, blue hydrogen to more complete carbon, natural gas to heat, diesel fuel to heat, coal to heat. Carbon emissions are seen in oranges, including in the production, processing and transportation of fuels. Carbon dioxide emissions of rust, unburned methane are shown in red.

Anyone who lives in an area with old pipelines knows that gas leaks are a tragedy. Methane is a small molecule, and it is very good at finding cracks in the system. Gas wells and processing plants are also very liquid. Add it all up, and 1-8 percent of all energy-related methane goes into the atmosphere.

In the new study, paper authors and two well-known climate scientists, Robert Howard and Mark Jacobson, account for 3.5 percent of consumption. Using satellite or airplanes, they surveyed 21 emissions from gas fields, pipelines, and storage facilities. To see how their 3.5 percent impact affected, Hawart and Jacobson also measured 1.54 percent, 2.54 percent, and 4.3 percent flows, respectively. Those rates are based on the analysis of stable carbon et al.

Regardless of the amount of liquid used, the production of blue hydrogen has created more greenhouse gas counterparts than natural gas. And at 3.5 percent of the flow, blue hydrogen was worse for climate than coal.

“The combined emissions of carbon dioxide and methane are higher than that of fossil fuels than for hydrogen and blue hydrogen (if treated for carbon dioxide emissions),” says Hawart and Jacobson. “Methane emissions are a major contributor to this, and the emissions from gray and blue hydrogen are greater than any fossil fuels.”

Questionable policies

The new carbon bill could weaken some countries’ climate plans, especially the UK. In the coming weeks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to unveil a plan to transform the country’s energy sector from natural gas to a mixture of blue and green hydrogen. The government says it needs 5 GW “low-carbon” hydrogen capacity by the end of the decade. Oil and gas giants BP and Equinor, citing a clue from government announcements, said the country’s largest blue hydrogen plants have output of 1 GW and 1.2 GW.

The new study also casts doubt on some plans to convert some vehicles into hydrogen. Some sectors, such as freight and aviation, may need hydrogen for some lines. However, many countries and trucks, which are supposed to be zero-emitting by 2035 or earlier, will have a difficult time approving the direct conversion of hydrogen into hydrogen. Hydrogen-intensive companies, such as Toyota, are in a tight spot on their bridges over the zero-carbon portfolio.

Of course, not all hydrogen suffers from these problems. Green hydrogen, which is used to distribute water using wind or solar energy, does not suffer from similar carbon accounting problems. But it will no longer use the existing infrastructure of oil and gas companies. So while this new study may seem like a very interesting case of blue hydrogen, it is unlikely to be the last nail in the coffin.

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